Please Watch Frances Haugen’s ‘60 Minutes’ Interview Before Logging Onto Facebook Again
Facebook has a uniformly negative impact on society. We've known this for a while, but have managed to remain strong and share our cat photos on the platform anyway. Frances Haugen was a former Facebook product manager who resigned in May but left with an “unprecedented" collection of private Facebook research that she shared with the Wall Street Journal. After a review of the documents, the Journal determined that "Facebook Inc. knows, in acute detail, that its platforms are riddled with flaws that cause harm, often in ways only the company fully understands."
Haugen went public as the Facebook whistleblower on Sunday's “60 Minutes." It reminds me of the show's 1996 interview with Jeffrey Wigand, who blew the whistle on corrupt actions within the tobacco industry. In both cases, profits were consistently prioritized over public safety.
HAUGEN: The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.
Facebook recruited Haugen in 2019 and she agreed to join only if she could work against disinformation because she'd watched a friend get trapped in the alternate reality of online conspiracy theories. She was assigned to Civic Integrity, a showy bit of PR sleight of hand intended to show that Facebook cared about disinformation during the 2020 election. However, the company pulled the plug once the election was over, which is true in only in the most literal sense. Practically speaking, the Big Lie is actively gaining ground, arguably thanks to Facebook.
HAUGEN: They told us, "We're dissolving Civic Integrity." Like, they basically said, "Oh good, we made it through the election. There wasn't riots. We can get rid of Civic Integrity now." Fast forward a couple months, we got the insurrection. And when they got rid of Civic Integrity, it was the moment where I was like, "I don't trust that they're willing to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous."
Haugen confirms Facebook's algorithms are specifically designed to push content that gets engagement, or reaction, which is consistently "content that is hateful, that is divisive, that is polarizing." Sorry, but the pictures of smiling grandkids simply don't inspire the same emotional engagement as “articles" about how Dr. Anthony Fauci is the next Hitler.
Facebook isn't just passively bad at its job. It's actually quite good at protecting its profit margins, even if the public cost is a few insurrections. Jeffrey Wigand revealed how the tobacco company he'd worked for tried to make the poison it pushed even more addictive. This is the moral company Facebook keeps.
Haugen told "60 Minutes" correspondent Scott Pelley that she didn't just quit and move on to the next high-paying social media gig because it horrified her that the public wasn't fully aware of the scope of Facebook's bad acts. She also knew staying and trying to change the system from the inside was pointless. She'd seen others try, and they'd "ground themselves to the ground."
Early this year, Haugen knew she had to get out but with enough hard data "that no one can question that this is real." This amounted to tens of thousands of pages of Facebook internal research she copied on the sneak. She believes this proves Facebook is lying through its teeth when it claims it's making any real progress against the toxic stew of hate, violence, and disinformation readily available on the site. She points to a recent study where Facebook admits, “We estimate that we may action as little as three to five percent of hate and about six-tenths of one percent of V & I [violence and incitement] on Facebook despite being the best in the world at it." ("Action" seems to be corporate speak for "act on," perhaps removing a post or suspending an author.) This is only evidence that Facebook is the “best in the world" at helping spread hate, violence, and incitement.
Haugen said Facebook cynically promotes a false choice: “They want you to believe you must choose between connecting with those you love online and your personal privacy ... that in order to share fun photos of your kids with old friends, you must also be inundated with misinformation. They want you to believe that this is just part of the deal."
Facebook clothes its naked self interest in the false robes of free speech and free expression. However, its primary motivation is financial reward on the back of American democracy.
A data scientist from Iowa, Haugen has a degree in computer engineering and a Harvard master's degree in business. She's worked for Google and Pinterest. However, she's well aware that Mark Zuckerberg's corporate fist could crush her, ending her career at 37. She said in her opening statement to Congress: "I know Facebook has infinite resources, which it could use to destroy me." This is the power that we willingly give that empty-eyed ghoul whenever we log onto Facebook.
However, regardless of what the immediate future holds for Frances Haugen, history should remember her more favorably than Mark Zuckerberg.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."